Bill Clegg was supposed to die five years ago. He reached rock bottom, addicted to crack cocaine, the drug that plagued poor, inner-city communities in the mid-'80s, but which doesn't discriminate against successful professionals. They, too, can fall victim to its powerful hooks.
In "Portrait of an Addict As a Young Man
," Clegg, currently a literary agent for William Morris Endeavor agency, poignantly narrates his shocking downward spiral from success and confidence to detachment, paranoia, addiction and very nearly, death.
"Crack was just a dark allure."
"I grew up in the '80s, when there was a lot of press about [crack]," Clegg told Asylum. "It was the scourge of cities. For me, crack was just a dark allure, and hearing the high of it described in mystical, almost indescribable terms, into that void I projected and imagined and fantasized."
Clegg said he had begun using drugs and alcohol from the time he was 12, to erase the mental torments that included a domineering/aggressive father and a disorder that kept him from urinating without difficulty. Between the addictive mindset he had formed and the prevalence of available drugs in New York City, his hometown, he says he was surprised he wasn't introduced to crack sooner.
"I was 25 when I tried it for the first time," Clegg said. "I had run into somebody from my hometown, a respected lawyer who I hadn't seen in long time. I went back to his place in the city, and after a few drinks he asked me if I had ever freebased, and I lied and said yes. I always had wanted to. And then he produced a crack pipe."
"It was something I was obsessed with."
In the beginning, Clegg used the drug every few months, usually after an evening of drinking, when he would call up one of the acquaintances with whom all-night smoke-and-sex sessions formed the foundation of their connection. In the light of day, he would be mortified and appalled by his actions when he returned home to his boyfriend much later.
"It was an addiction from first time I tried it," Clegg said as a matter of fact. "It was never really recreational. It was something I was obsessed with, a mental preoccupation, just the engagement of doing the drug."
There's a joke in recovery communities about what crack does to a life. 12-steppers say it's good news when crack enters an addict's story, because it means the tale of addiction is "almost over."
Such an all-consuming addiction immediately begins to take a toll on every aspect of the user's life: His work and finances, his health, his relationships. Once crack enters the picture, it doesn't take long to hit bottom, when the addict either gets help, or dies.
It was the same for Clegg, who soon was loyal only to his addiction. His family and his boyfriend staged an intervention.
"I went to rehab the first time kicking and screaming," Clegg said. "When I left, I felt great relief. I believed I could stay sober. But I was desperate to prove to people that I was just as effective, successful and responsible as they once thought I was. All my energies went into work, and I didn't actively stay sober."
So a few months later, he began using again. Heavily.
"I had embraced death."
This is when the story gets hard to read, as Clegg describes carrying his haggard body around the city and growing increasingly paranoid in various hotel rooms (before they start turning him away); smoking and guzzling vodka to kill the anxiety; watching pornography and burning through $70,000 in savings, wearing pants that only stay on his withering body after he carves an ever-greater number of homemade holes into his belt.
After a few months, Clegg settled into the Soho Grand in downtown Manhattan with $2,000 worth of crack for what he thought would be the final binge and the place of his death.
"By the time I got there, I had run out of money, and I did not see returning to my life as an option," Clegg said. "So ending my life was my only option. I really felt a great relief. And in this very self-centered, dramatic way, it felt like an end to all of the struggling, which goes back to childhood. Everything seemed impossible. Life had become unmanageable. I had boxed myself in, quite literally, so I had embraced death as a sanctuary from all the difficulty that I had created."
To his own surprise, he woke up from the suicide attempt. He ended up in an ER and later a psychiatric ward in the hospital, shocked that he was still alive. We asked Clegg if that was the moment that sobriety seemed possible.
"I'd say it was more that at that moment life seemed possible," he said. "I did what people told me to do. I felt that I had proven that my good thinking only led me to a suicide attempt. So I started listening to other people."
And today, it's other people who help keep him on the straight-and-narrow in his rebuilt life.
"I will always be in the process of making peace with that time, the harm I caused others," Clegg said. "By not drinking or using drugs, by showing up for the people in my life, the work I've been trusted with, and not abandoning it as I did before, I can in this way, make a living amends for the wreckage of the past. Nothing can fully right the wrongs, but this is a beginning."